Monday, June 21, 2010

Cheats, Dives & Waka Waka

Evil handball vs Good handball

Every British soccer commentator has felt it their duty to talk about Thierry Henry's handball against the Irish every time the camera turned towards the French striker at this World Cup. In addition, every British newspaper finds ways to include the handball mention with any article related to the French team because they believe Henry's double juggle is no less than a war crime. And moments after the French lost 2-0 to Mexico, Soccernet decided the only headline they could come up with was "Irish Eyes are Smiling" and ignored any mention of Mexican joy at such a famous result. Yet, no one seems to find anything wrong about Luis Fabiano's double juggling of the ball to score Brazil's second goal against the Ivory Coast. This is how the Guardian summed it up.

Superb again from the Sevilla striker. Dinks the ball over Zokora, dinks the ball over Touré, (then brings the ball down with his arm), before cracking another fizzing shot past Barry. More than a hint of controversy about that one, but the skill was sublime in the build up.

So does that mean as long as the skill is sublime, then a double handball is ok? Or does it simply mean that as long as a double handball is not committed against a British team, then it is perfectly alright?

Canadian broadcasters did highlight the illegal usage of the arm but still dubbed it a beautiful goal of amazing skill. It is remarkable that Henry was blasted for cheating yet people find Fabiano's illegal goal perfectly acceptable. To add a comical touch to the whole matter, the ref asked Fabiano if he used his arm in scoring the goal. As expected, Fabiano said no but one can detect a hint of a smile in his response.

Today, a partial admittance came from Fabiano but it is still nonsense:

But in order to make the goal more beautiful, there had to be a doubtful element. It was a spectacular goal and I believe it was not a voluntary handball. It was a legitimate goal and it was one of the most beautiful goals that I've scored in my career. Where better to score such a goal than at the World Cup?"

I may be the only person on the planet who cannot see it as the beautiful goal that it is being called. If players can use their arm to bring the ball down, then I am sure we will see many such "beautiful goals".

Oh the acting...

Abdel-kader Keïta showed the world what cheating is all about when he got Kaka sent off by going down as if a sniper's bullet had hit him in the face. To make matters worse, Chile's Arturo Vidal decided to copy Abdel-kader Keïta and faked a slap to the face thereby getting Behrami sent off. Chile duly beat the Swiss 1-0 but it is hard to view that game after such an act of blatant cheating.

Such play-acting has become all too common and has tarnished this game. FIFA need to do something to stop this play-acting but as usual they remain silent while the World Cup continues to be ruined by cheats.

2002 Deja vu? or recurring travel blues?

French, Italian, Portuguese and English players all struggled and looked tired in 2002 when the World Cup was hosted in Asia for the first time. Even though Germany got to the 2002 final, they did it on the back of three consecutive 1-0 results. Now in Africa’s first World Cup, France, Italy and England are struggling once again but after a lackluster opener, atleast Portugal have found their shooting boots with a 7-0 win over North Korea.

Could it be that some of the current generation of European national players struggle or are not interested when the tournament is away from Europe? Or are the European nations just following history by performing poorly on foreign soil? Historically, European nations have not won a World Cup hosted outside of Europe in 8 attempts. On the other hand, European teams have won 9 out of 10 World Cups hosted in Europe. The sole non-European victory was provided by Brazil, ofcourse, who won the 1958 World Cup in Sweden by beating the hosts 5-2 in a memorable final when a young Pele announced his arrival on the world stage. Including the European triumph, Brazil have won the World Cup in 4 continents with a 1962 win in Chile, Mexico in 1970, USA in 1994 and Korea/Japan in 2002. Shockingly, Brazil lost the 1950 World Cup on home soil to Uruguay. After Brazil, Argentina are the only nation to have won in multiple continents as they won the 1978 World Cup at home (albeit with some luck in the final against Holland and maybe a bribe against Peru) and managed a famous (that goal and that handball) victory in Mexico 1986.

So a European winner in South Africa can dent the European travel blues theory although this theory will still get a stern test in 2014 when Brazil hosts the next World Cup. Safe to say, Brazil will be keen to erase memories of 1950 by achieving a home win four years from now.

Waka Waka -- This time for South America, not Africa

The record of the 6 African teams at this World Cup stands dismally at just one win (Ghana 1-0 Serbia), 4 draws (1-1, 0-0, 0-0, 1-1) and 7 losses. The six teams have just managed 6 goals between them but have conceded 15, with South Africa and Ivory Coast letting in 3 each in their 3-0 and 3-1 losses to Uruguay and Brazil respectively.

Prior to the World Cup, a lot of soccer writers/commentators mentioned that an African team would reach the semi-finals in South Africa. I always found that statement puzzling because I could not envision any of the African teams to even make it out of their groups let alone reach the semis. As it stands, Cameroon have become the first team to be officially eliminated from the World Cup and going into the final group games, only Ghana is best poised to make the next round but they have a tough test against Germany and have to find a way to score a goal from open play as both Ghanaian goals in this tournament have come from the penalty spot.  Algeria have already surpassed expectations with their 0-0 tie with England and still have an outside chance to make the second round but they have to score a goal for that to happen.

There isn't one easy explanation for all the African teams’ failures although all six teams have suffered from not having creative midfielders. In the case of Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon, the managers have to take a good chunk of the responsibility regardless of the time they have been employed in their jobs. Ivory Coast brought in Sven-Göran Eriksson in March and Nigeria hired Lars Lagerbäck in Febuary. A few months is not enough time for the managers to work with their teams especially if key players are plying their trade in Europe but Eriksson & Lagerbäck should have atleast established a tactical shape to utilize the players on hand. Although Paul Le Guen demonstrated that even a year may not be enough time to get things right as Le Guen's puzzling tactical decisions have aided Cameroon's poor display, especially in their opener against Japan when Alex Song was left on the bench and Cameroon's most lethal striker Samuel Eto'o was deployed wide right where he was rendered ineffective. On the other hand, in South Africa's case no amount of time may have been sufficient because their team lacks enough creative personnel. Even though Carlos Parreira is in his second tenure with South Africa, it is hard to see how much better he could have done given the resources at his disposal. South African players played above their strengths in the opener and almost got a winner but their weaknesses were on display against Uruguay.

On the other hand, South American teams continued their incredible unbeaten run at this World Cup thanks to Chile's win over Switzerland, Brazil's handball aided 3-1 victory over Ivory Coast and Paraguay's efficient 2-0 win over a dull and uninspired Slovakian team. The 5 South American teams now have 8 wins and 2 draws, scoring 18 goals and letting in just 4 goals.

Bragging rights for Europe and South America are also at stake in this World Cup as South America and Europe have split the previous 18 World Cup wins -- South America has won the cup 9 times (Brazil with 5, Uruguay and Argentina with 2 each) and Europe also has 9 wins (Italy with 4, Germany with 3, England and France with one each). Teams from the remaining four continents are still in contention at this World Cup so there is a still tiny (a generous 0.1%) chance that someone other than Europe or South America might succeed in Africa. But for now, things point to a South American champion in Africa.

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